October 2, 2010

QotD: A critique of “reading with critical distance”

Filed under: Books, Media, Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 21:43

There is another lit crit thing — I consider it a perversion, myself — that they call “reading with critical distance”. From the writer’s point of view, it as if one has knocked oneself out to prepare a bang-up with-all-the-trimmings Thanksgiving dinner, and had one’s guests troop in, weigh and measure the viands and photograph the table — and then depart having eaten not one bite.

It’s dinner, dammit. You’re supposed to eat it, and be nourished.

And then sit around discussing it, sure, and ask for the recipes, and exchange cooking tips and anecdotes and tales of dinners past, and so on to the limits of the metaphor.

Reading with critical distance only seems to me very nearly the same as not reading at all. For one thing, such a reader is very likely to miss all the essential emotional connections evoked between the lines. To switch metaphors, it’s like serving to a tennis player who stands there and doesn’t hit the ball back, watches it roll off to the side of the court, and then says, “I don’t see the point of this game.”

Bash ’em with me racket, I will…

So whoever it was who was finding this sort of analysis disturbing, I suspect what was happening was you were being pulled out of a former full engagement with the story by this sort of approach to the text, and rightly feeling that something valuable was being taken away, without necessarily being replaced with something of equal or greater value. Trying to hold both modes of reading in one’s brain at the same time must be kind of like having Simon Illyan’s memory chip in place. It may be best to take turns with the two modes.

Supposedly, training to critical reading makes one “a better reader” but if it results in one being able to happily read far fewer books, I’m not exactly sure where the merit lies. It’s like the hazard of revisiting beloved books of one’s childhood, and finding them swapped as if by bad fairies with inferior changelings. How can one call oneself a better reader as an adult if one is clearly having a much worse read…?

Lois McMaster Bujold, email to the LMB mailing list, 2010-10-01

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